The Ratana Church has made its expectations of the Labour Party very clear. It wants four Ratana candidates for winnable seats on Labour's list at the next election. It is a demand the party cannot meet. If it was quietly disposed to do such a deal before, it cannot do it now. The very public demand, issued as a challenge at Ratana Pa on Sunday, will compromise any new Maori candidates Labour might put high on its list next year.

Voters do not take kindly to the idea that MPs may be beholden to organisations other than their party. Labour has had enough difficulty over the years from its association with the union movement, supposedly the reason a number of lacklustre candidates from union ranks can often be found in Labour's winnable seats.

It is somewhat surprising that Labour's longstanding alliance with Ratana has not raised voters' eyebrows more than it did in the years this obscure, syncretic Christian church monopolised Labour's selections for Maori seats. Its candidates held all the Maori electorates from 1943 until 1996, when New Zealand First captured them for a term. Now the Maori Party holds five to Labour's two.

Yet the church's political influence seems undiminished. Every year leaders of all parties converge on Ratana Pa near Wanganui during the church's late-January celebrations of its founder, Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana. Each party's reception is carefully read as a barometer of its standing with a church that supposedly has a political reach far beyond the 45,000 people (8 per cent of Maori) who report Ratana to be their religion.

The church now faces a dilemma. Its historic pact with Labour, forged between the founder and Michael Joseph Savage, has the status of lore on both sides. Neither tires of hearing the tale of the 1936 meeting where Ratana presented the new Prime Minister with three huia feathers protruding from a potato, along with greenstone and his grandfather's broken gold watch, symbolic of lost mana and broken Treaty promises. It is believed the items are buried with Savage at Bastion Pt.

Ratana's bond with Labour might not easily be broken but it has been sorely stressed in recent years, first by the foreshore and seabed law that led directly to the formation of the independent Maori Party, then by National's voluntary governing partnership with that party.

Both National and Maori Party leaders were well received at Ratana's marae last year and by all accounts the warmth was undiminished this time. The same cannot be said for Labour. Phil Goff and his caucus members were welcomed on a different day and had to listen to praise of John Key. Mr Goff's efforts to belittle the achievements of the governing partnership would have done nothing for Labour's cause.

After Labour's powhiri, a Ratana spokesman said there would shortly be a meeting to decide whether to continue with the alliance.

Too much might be read into that warning. Labour has probably heard it regularly in periods of tension. Mr Goff was confident enough of the historic bond to reject the demand for high places on the party list. But with the Maori Party courting Ratana too, Labour could need to offer it something new.

The difficulty for the old alliance is that it did not produce leading MPs. Ratana filled the Labour seats with quiet, genial, diffident long-servers. The few exceptions did not last as long. To reclaim Maori allegiance, Labour may have to look past its old ally to find candidates of leadership quality. With its weekend pitch for list places, Ratana sounded like a relic of an era well gone.